Direct versus indirect characterisation (tip 51) 1

Direct characterisation is when you tell the reader what a person is like (e.g. she was a kind woman); indirect characterisation is when you show the reader a character’s actions and leave them to make their own judgements (e.g. she always bought treats for the neighbourhood kids). As a general rule, you should tell us objective facts about people (e.g. he was 32; he sometimes spat at cats) but show opinions such as ‘he was nasty’ through the character’s actions.

Characters can be presented in two main ways:

Direct characterisation: When you tell the reader about a character (Mr. Perkins was an unusually anti-social neighbour)

Indirect characterisation: When you show the reader a character’s actions, speech, or thoughts: (‘Good morning!’ said Mr. Jones.  Mr. Perkins put his head down and walked faster).

Most of the time, we prefer to make judgements for ourselves – after all, this is what we do in real life. Consider these two accounts of Chip:

Chip was alienated from society, miserable and alone.  He was a lecturer at a university, a cultured man who liked food and wine, but by this stage he was finding it increasingly difficult to occupy himself.  It wasn’t exactly that he was bored; rather, he had sunk into the sort of depression that makes one so apathetic that it becomes difficult to do anything.  His health was terrible and he was verging on alcoholism.  He was living in chaos with mess everywhere.  He had run out of money.  Quite simply, Chip wasn’t coping with life.

Compare that to this version, adapted from Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections:

TV caused Chip such critical and political anguish that he could no longer watch even cartoons without smoking cigarettes, and he now had a lung-sized region of pain in his chest, and there was no intoxicant of any kind in his house, not even cooking sherry, not even cough syrup.  He went to his dining table and confirmed the absence of dregs in the wine bottles on it.  He’d used the last $220 of credit on his Visa card to buy eight bottles of a rather tasty Fronsac, and on Saturday night he’d thrown one last dinner party to rally his supporters on the faculty.  He hadn’t had the strength to clear the table in the intervening days.  He considered the blackened red leaf lettuce, the skin of congealed grease on an uneaten lamb chop, the mess of corks and ashes.

Comparing these examples, you’ll notice that direct versus indirect characterisation is a little bit like telling versus showing, so it’s worth remembering this general rule: if it’s an objective fact, just tell us as clearly and accurately as is possible, but if it’s something subjective – an opinion on something unmeasurable – then just tell us the facts and let us draw our own conclusions.

Of course, there are many occasions when you might want to break this rule, as Joyce Carol Oates does when she writes of the father in ‘Where is Here’:

‘He was reserveg by nature, but genial and even gregarious when taken unaware.’

Thanks for watching, and good luck with your writing.

The thumbnail for this video uses an image by Derrick Tyson. It is covered by a Creative Commons License and you can find more of his work here:

One comment

  1. Pingback: Direct versus indirect characterisation (tip 51) | Bad Ambience

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